|Thursday 31 May, 2001|
Indian Astrology vs Indian Science
How would you fancy a postdoctorate degree in palmistry? Or perhaps a degree in astrology? The Indian University Grants Commission is now, controversially, offering funding to create university departments of Vedic Astrology.
The announcement has angered many Indian scientists, but as Science View discovers objections do not simply stem from science, but from those who fear that politicians are trying to create a new ‘Golden Age’.
|In Science View Geof Watts is joined by the Indian Physicist Shobhit Mahajan, political scientist Gautam Sen, and the Financial Times' South Asia correspondent, David Gardner. To listen to the programme, please click here|
All sorts of institutions around the world offer qualifications in subjects such as astrology and palmistry, but few of the bodies teaching the courses are reputable universities enjoying state support.
It is therefore unsurprising that the decision made by India’s University Grants Commission to offer cash for the creation of university departments of Vedic Astrology has created a rumpus among some of the country’s senior academics, particularly in the sciences.
Studying Vedic Astrology?
Vedic derives from the word Veda, meaning knowledge. It refers to things that come from the original knowledge of the Vedic scriptures of ancient India.
More than 30 of India’s 200 universities have already said that they intend to take part in the scheme which will provide funding for Vedic Astrology courses. These courses will be held at graduate and postgraduate level, with provision made for research at PhDs.
With plans for the first candidates to be enrolled for the coming academic year, each department that accepts the offer will be funded to pay for five teaching posts including one at professional level, a library, a computer laboratory and a horoscope bank.
Rejection Of Orthodox Science
Critics of the Government plans oppose them on various grounds. Some feel that topics like astrology represent a backward-looking rejection of orthodox sciences.
If this is the case it could be an expensive move for a country which is fast making it’s mark as an international force in the hi-tech industries.
Writing in the journal, The Spectator, David Gardner, the Financial Times’ South Asia correspondent outlined how more than 100 scientists and 300 political and social scientists have written in protest to the Indian government. Their letters cite the words of the renowned astrophysicist, Jayant Narlikar in that:
|‘The elevation of astrology would take India “backwards towards medieval times”.’|
A Question Of Priorities
It is estimated that over 90% of the Indian population, scientists included, believe in astrology. Whilst it may be appropriate to study their historical and cultural significance, further critics believe that astrology courses have no place on a university’s science curriculum.
This may seem a procedural problem, but it also highlights the need to prioritise spending money. In a country where 40% of the population are illiterate and educational funding is limited, critics have questioned if Vedic Astrology teaching should be paramount in a university syllabus.
Shobhit Mahajan works with the Department of Physics and Astrophysics at the University of Delhi, he is well aware of the poor conditions in many Indian universities. He comments:
‘I teach in a university that is amongst the most pampered universities as far as India goes, but I teach occasionally in classrooms that have no light. This means that if there is an overcast sky the students can not see the blackboard… I think judicious use of resources is very important.’
A New Golden Age?
South Asia observers have also argued that the introduction of Vedic Astrology study is an attempt to assert Hindu supremacy. This suggestion is politically charged with links being made to the government’s far right, fundamentalist views.
Speaking at an Indian Philosophy conference last December, Human Resources and Development Minister, Dr Murli Manohar Joshi urged scientists to read the Sanskrit. He claimed that modern science is ‘inconclusive and therefore unreliable’, and that it was therefore now important to ‘mobilise the overpassing of reason.’
Dr Joshi’s words are revealing to those who believe that the move towards vedic teachings are politically charged. Such critics claim that it is part of a wider challenge to empirical knowledge and that politicians are trying to promote their version of a new Hindu ‘Golden Age’.
The construction of such a Golden Age, according to critics, draws on the teachings of the Sanskrit. Influenced by the far reaching Rashtriya Swayamesevak Sangh (RSS) organisation, critics claim that the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the party dominating India’s ruling coalition government, are attempting to re-write India’s history.
This claim asserts that academic works, which cite the histories of anti-colonial action, would be withdrawn in favour of those drawing on the ancient scriptures. In eliminating such texts, the fact that the RSS played no role in the fight for India’s freedom would also be lost.
If this argument is to be believed then the question of Vedic Astrology has little, if anything, to do with matters of science, but more to do with understanding India’s past and redefining it’s future.
|Scientists were recently up in arms when French astrologist Elizabeth Teissier was awarded a doctoral degree in sociology by the Sorbonne University in Paris. |
Scientists feared that Teissier would use the qualification to elevate the status of astrology and further her claim that astrology should be recognised by the Sorbonne as a legitimate area of study.
|Indian University Grants Commission |
|Understanding Veda |
|Indian Astrology |
|British Association for Vedic Astrology |
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